Over the last generation or so, major progress has been made in reducing hunger and malnourishment worldwide. Working together, governments, NGOs, and the private sector have almost halved the proportion of hungry people around the world—from 23 percent in 1990 to under 13 percent in 2014. And yet, if some recent studies are to be believed, one group appears to be suffering disproportionately: American college students. According to an October 2016 survey, “Hunger on Campus,” 48 percent of respondents “reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days,” which means that college students suffer this way in the same proportion as the population of countries like Ethiopia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Congo. “There’s a Hunger Problem on America’s College Campuses,” CNN’s website reported late last year. Who knew that American universities were famine zones?
Well, not so fast. One problem with this discussion is the fuzzy definition of “food insecurity,” which many general readers might confuse with the more empirically rigorous, medically defined category of malnutrition. By contrast, food insecurity is a self-reported, broadly defined indicator, heavily influenced by how questions are asked in surveys (and how different cultures and populations respond to those inquiries). The USDA estimates that 12.7 percent of Americans are food-insecure, or what it defines as lacking “ready availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods“ acquired in “socially acceptable ways (that is, without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing or other coping strategies).”
Of course, 12.7 percent is a far cry from 48 percent. The disconnect between the on- and off-campus numbers grows partially out of the fact that almost all the research behind the high collegiate numbers has been collected by partisan advocacy groups with a vested interest in portraying a campus hunger crisis. “Hunger on Campus,” for example, was put together by the College and University Food Bank Alliance, the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, the Student Government Resource Center, and the Student Public Interest Research Groups. These groups use much vaguer measures of food insecurity than the USDA does. “Hunger on Campus,” for instance, is based on self-reported responses to prompts such as “I worried whether my food would run out before I got money to buy more”; “The food that I bought just didn’t last, and I didn’t have money to get more”; and “I couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals.” Respondents were asked to indicate whether these statements were “sometimes true” or “often true” over the previous 30 days.
The imprecision of the questions is compounded by problems with statistical methodology. An appendix to “Hunger on Campus” explains that the findings are based on convenience surveys, “collected through face-to-face outreach by staff and volunteers affiliated with the organizations that coordinated the research,” and that, as a result, the findings were “not directly generalizable to the U.S. student population at large” (emphasis mine). In social science, convenience sampling—sometimes known as “grab sampling” or “opportunity sampling”—is at best considered a preliminary, rough-cut approach, generally plagued by sampling bias and always lacking in statistical rigor. If careful probability sampling is the gold standard, convenience sampling is its distant, poorer cousin.
More careful, less sensational studies, such as one recently released by the Community College Equity Assessment Lab (CCEAL) at San Diego State University, sketch a less dramatic picture. The CCEAL study was based on a subsample of 3,647 California community-college students, drawn from a randomly selected national sample of such students. Employing the USDA definition, the study found that about 12.2 percent of students in the subsample were food-insecure, a figure slightly lower than the USDA’s national average. Though CCEAL is an interest group, too, its findings are statistically robust and plausible.
But “plausible” won’t get activists to the barricades. As a result of campus food-insecurity overreaction, about 400 schools have enrolled in the College and University Food Bank Alliance, with membership doubling in just the last two years. No one opposes helping out genuinely hungry or even “food-insecure” students, but we should demand honest numbers. That 48 percent figure—nearly four times higher than reliable empirical measurements—will likely continue to be used, because it’s jarring and dramatic. It’s also nowhere close to accurate.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/GettyImages